Common Place   /   October 21, 2014

Cities, Water, and the Fabric of Sustainability

Stephen Assink

Much of what we enjoy about modern living, especially modern urban living, is the transformation of once-laborious tasks, such as collecting drinking water or discarding trash, into simpler—largely thoughtless—routines. Having replaced the communal well with individual faucets, it is that much easier to distance ourselves from the larger natural ecosystem. Yet, environmentalists have sought to dispel that temptation by constantly pointing to the inseparable intricacies of water, air, and soil and how these elements bind together cities and their environs. As William Cronon in his book, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, points out:

Each new improvement [for the city means] a shift in the regional geography—a dredged harbor here, a canal or road there— so the advantages sustaining the city [come] to have an ever larger human component. A kind of “second nature,” designed by and “improved” toward human ends, gradually [emerges] atop the original landscape—“first nature.”

Last week, the New York Times featured a video short on New York City's water supply. “A Billions Gallons a Day” wonderfully highlighted not only why it is important to maintain a sound urban infrastructure, but also how the needs of cities are interwoven into the fabric of their surroundings. And with the world's population rapidly moving to cities, sustainability issues such as energy, water, and food, will increasingly be urban concerns.

Recognizing that our urban projects and amenities are always implicated in the larger natural world should drive us to build and use with care—something that “A Billion Gallons a Day” reveals can certainly be done.